Carolina Panthers beat Saints in home opener, 35-27

Charlotte, NC – The Carolina Panthers knew Sunday’s game against NFC South division rival New Orleans was a huge one. Coming off a disappointing offensive effort in their season opener at Tampa, the Panthers won a must-win game before 72,879 fans at Bank of America Stadium.

“I said to the guys before the game that this was a must win, and it really was,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “We couldn’t go 0-2 to start this season off and lose at home, and lose to the Saints again. Their team has been successful the past few seasons. To set a new standard around here we had to beat them.”

Last week, the running game was anemic in Tampa. This week, the Panthers had a 2-to-1, run-pass ratio against the Saints, with 41 rushes and 20 passes. Each member of the Panthers’  backfield scored a touchdown.

Carolina Panthers running Back Jonathan Stewart returned to the line-up, rushing 11 times for 51 yards against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Photo courtesy David T. Foster/Charlotte Observer.

“We knew that we had to pick it up. Last week wasn’t good enough,” said fullback Mike Tolbert, who scored his first touchdown as a Panther on a 2-yard run. “Coach knew that we needed the ball a little bit more, and he gave it to us. He gave us our shot, and we made it happen.”

So did the Panthers’ defense.

Last season, half of their defensive starters were out in Week 17 when New Orleans destroyed the Cats, 45-17. In that game, the Saints were able to put up 617 yards. Several players were upset that the Saints kept quarterback Drew Breese, running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham in the game to go after individual records

“We weren’t a very good team Week 17 last year. I don’t really talk about last year very often,” Gross said. “But that being said, I was glad to beat them. The Saints have kind of been at the top for a while. It’s fun to beat those guys.”

Carolina Panthers safety Charles Godfrey intercepts New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Breese on Sunday. Photo courtesy David T. Foster/Charlotte Observer.

This time, it was different…very different.  Safety Charles Godfrey’s interception got the Panther going…and linebacker Jon Beason ended the Saints’ comeback hopes. With the Saints at their 29 with 31 seconds left, Beason – playing deep middle – cheated toward Graham’s side and Brees never saw him.

“It’s hard to get an interception on Drew. He’s so good. He’s going to make those unbelievable passes,” Beason said. “To get a chance to even get a hand on the ball is big. So a pick, I just said to myself when I caught it, ‘Finally.’ ”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on one of his 13 rushes. Newton set a personal record gaining 71 yards on the ground Sunday against the Saints. Photo courtesy David T. Foster/Charlotte Observer.

Offensively, the Panthers made the home crowd very happy. Quarterback Cam Newton had a great day, completing 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown, and ended up with a quarterback rating of 129.2. Additionally, he rushed 13 times for 71 yards, a personal high. One reason for the great numbers…the zone read offense.

Newton said the zone read pulled the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, opening the Panthers’ play-action passing game. “You do read option, read option, read option and get them to play seven and eight in the box, and you’ve got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off of it,” Newton said. “So many teams are doing it now, and with good execution it’s going to be successful.”

The Redskins ran the zone read during a 40-32 win at New Orleans in Week 1, rolling up 459 total yards behind rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.  The Panthers beat that…with 463 total yards. And…the Saints also rolled up some impressive yardage numbers – 486 – but the final numbers that counted were on the scoreboard.

The breakout star of the game, however, was receiver Brandon LaFell. He had a team-high six receptions for 90 yards and spiced it with a 25-yard run that LaFell felt should have gone another 33 yards to the end zone had he not gotten “happy feet.”

Coach Ron Rivera came over to LaFell’s locker after the game and held a handshake for an extra few seconds. “Good game,” Rivera said.

“Thanks,” came LaFell’s reply.

Carolina Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell had a breakout game against the Saints on Sunday. Photo courtesy David T. Foster/Charlotte Observer.

LaFell had an outstanding training camp and has benefitted from the extra work he put in prior to the season.

“Man, it felt great today. We got out there and got into a rhythm,” LaFell said. “Cam found me a lot today. We just got out there and made plays. I got real confident early because I kept getting the ball and I kept continuing to roll.

“With Steve (Smith) pulling double teams and I’m getting one-on-ones, I’ve got the biggest smile on my face in the stadium. That’s going to happen a lot this year. I always tell Smitty I go off how you go.”

LaFell remained humble despite having a breakout game. For instance, he did not ask Newton to look for him more often.

“I don’t say nothing to Cam because I’d hate to be one of those guys fussing about the ball and he starts forcing the ball my way and bad stuff starts to happen,” LaFell said. “I just do my job, go run routes and get open.”

Rivera saw Sunday what he and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski envisioned with Smith and LaFell on the outside. Smith is in his 12th NFL season, LaFell two games into his third season.

“Brandon is developing into a fine receiver,” Rivera said. “He showed what he is capable of and those types of plays that he makes, the consistency by which he is making them, is really helping us. He really did a nice job.”

For LaFell, who attended Louisiana State, it was an especially satisfying Sunday.

“All (Saturday) and all (Sunday) morning, I’m getting text messages from roommates and old friends I went to college with (saying) the Saints are going to whoop y’all. They said we’re pulling for you but we’re pulling for the Saints,” LaFell said.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith runs down the field for 66-yards following a pass reception as New Orleans Saints cornerback Corey White tries to make the tackle during fourth quarter action. Photo Courtesy Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer.

Panthers’ wide receiver Steve Smith said the reason LaFell has become so valuable is simple. “Ever since Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) retired and also with Ricky (Proehl) retiring, we’ve been looking for a guy to step in and step up. I think Brandon has done that,” Smith said.

“He’s grown and he’s improving. … He’s been doing a great job. He pushes me. I push him.”

LaFell and Smith took advantage of the Saints’ coverage, getting open and combining for 194 receiving yards.

“(LaFell) had a great game. It seemed like he had a ton of big plays,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’ve always said on any given day it could be a lot of different guys. We can spread the ball around. Today was kind of a collective effort. Brandon did a great job. Steve always does a great job. It was a good all-around performance.”

And with that, the Panthers ended a four-game losing streak against the Saints. New Orleans has been the class of the division recently, but with the fallout from Bountygate (loss of coaches and players), Smith suggested there could be a changing of the guard in the division.

“Times change,” Smith said. “We’ve got to play them again, so it makes no sense to act like we’ve just won the world championship or we’re going to the playoffs. It’s one game. One game to learn from. One game to say, ‘Good job.’ But we have to move on and move on really quickly.”

Really quickly…like in four days when the Panthers host the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, on Thursday night.